Why write an introduction to an essay?
Well, there are several reasons. An introduction is usually reserved for longer works, and is used by dusty scholars to explain the reasoning for their edits, the methods of their translations, or putting the work in a context where it can best be understood. My reasoning falls in the later. This introduction is meant to expound further upon some of the ideas found in Any Size Mirror Is A Dictator, relating these ideas to more pragmatic examples, talking about how these ideas relate to a few personal anecdotes, as well as what these ideas may mean for other people, giving unfamiliar readers firmer ground to stand on before they get launched into space.
Well, other than saying I liked it, and was very grateful to experience and see a good portion of the opera at Momenta Art—the essay will focus less on “why this was good,” or, “why this is bad,” and more on how it works, why it works, the way it works, and why it is important… Everyone who has visited the opera have long since formed their opinions, and the rest who never saw it will never be able to form theirs, so this leaves me with a more interesting option of talking about the ideas of Any Size Mirror, what it speaks about performance, and what it means to culture in general.
Any Size Mirror Is A Dictator was presented as an opera, or more specifically what composer Brian McCorkle called “New” opera that found inspiration from figures like playwright Robert Wilson and composer Robert Ashley. I am not an expert on opera, or a musicologist on any level, and I can’t speak on how Mirror relates to contemporary ideas of opera—but I can say, as much as it is an opera, paradoxically it would be very unwise to look at it as such. Another way of putting it is that, the rules in which Mirror operated and were produced were very different from than let say, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This wasn’t ‘traditional’ opera, this wasn’t ‘immersive’ opera, this wasn’t ‘immersive’ theater; this was an opera produced under the rules of performance art. I had seen and wrote about Panoply Performance Laboratory’s previous opera Nature Fetish two years prior, and I can say that that looked downright formal compared to anything Mirror had to offer. This was something new.
What do I mean by this, the “rules of performance art?” Well, Brian McCorkle composed the music, Esther Neff wrote the libretto, and Lindsey Drury created the choreography, these are all standard elements in the production of an opera, but—these were only the frameworks which the actual performance operated around and were not dictated by. These elements were rehearsed by the performers, but untimely it was the performance and choreography scores interpreted by the performers (the dictators, the rehersive cast, the recursive cast and the actions of the audience) that created the performance; on some occasions these scores were even created moments before that night’s performance. Another difference between opera and performance art is that, opera requires a degree of suspension of disbelief—you have to believe that the imagined character Papageno really exists in the world of The Magic Flute as a part of the medium’s aesthetic, yet he doesn’t exist, nor can he ever exist; performance as an art-form, on the other hand, is not creating an imagined reality— but reality itself through action or acts of being that were once imagined but are now created. When you see Kaia Gilje perform, there is no ambiguity of what is real or what is not real: she is really creating those acts in the gallery space without rehearsed marks to create the performance. So, in a sense, Mirror as an opera was being created much like how performance art is created—as it is being performed, with performers using the score, libretto and choreography as tools (not requisites) to create each performance. It would be impossible to rehearse or recreate exactly as Any Size Mirror existed. It would be impossible to account for the many caprices of human action, reaction, and emotion that would constitute the entire opera’s performance in its seven week run. Because of this, in my essay, I interchange the words “performance” and “opera”, while meaning the same thing.
Any Size Mirror did not have anything that could be called a narrative (I’ll look further into this in my essay), rather the opera was driven by two themes, of which also happen to be the two ideas the make up the bedrock of any performance: construction and Agency. There are many ideas of construction found in the opera, whether it was more physical ideas like “dictator” Esther Neff’s construction of the performers’ wardrobes for the opera, to the performers’ construction of an “alphabet” using body movement, to the more conceptual ideas of identity construction and how we construct our roles in society. Instead of just symbolically representing these concepts through song and imagery, Mirror literalized these concepts through the unique means of expression that performance offers. In performance art the subject, the performer and the “art” itself are one in the same; during the course of a performance, a performer essentially constructs themselves as they are creating the performance: call this the ‘voice’ or ‘style’ or in dance ‘movement signature’— the aspect that is unique to that performers way of expression towards the creation of a particular action. Because of this, the opera became reflective of each performers’ personal lives—each of their own idiosyncrasies in movement, speech, actions, hesitations, emotions and ideas— contributing to the construction of the physical environment of each performance. Consequently, the opera took the theme of identity construction by physically (and conceptually) allowing the performers to construct themselves (their emotions, their action, their reactions) while they were constructing the opera from the bottom up, from the micro level of the performances and the environment, to the macro level of the overarching ideas and concepts of the opera itself. Both McCorkle and Neff have said that these themes were particularly influenced by the works of developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. Songs with titles such as “Cognizing Self,” confirm this.
Agency, the other dominant theme needs a word or two. Agency in this context is the idea for the potential of an individual to enact in the world around them through action, or the doer or cause of an action, a la, “anger [noun-subject] can be used for motivation as an agent of change.” As mentioned earlier, performance art is unique as an art form or discipline where it asks you to engage with it in the reality it is created. If art is to act like a mirror reflecting human experience than performance art is a light—human experience manifest. A Performance occurs when a performer(s) moves with bodies, senses, passions, thoughts and objects to move the viewer through an aesthetic creation or action unique to that time and place; it’s the melding of imagination and reality to create images and ideas that were once floating in an artist’s head, that is, mental space, but are now experiential for all who engage it. Additionally, the performance can be contributed to by the Agency of the viewer. For better or for worse the viewer creates a social barrier assigning themselves the role of a spectator, where their actions or non-actions can provide additional aesthetic or metaphoric meaning to the performance. In a very key moment in Any Size Mirror, these social barriers were eliminated, and all who attended the opera were revealed to have Agency in the opera’s creation. Panoply Lab had been using these themes in their work for quite some time, including a month long tour of the East coast and Midwest with collective Future Death Toll called Relational March; the opera represented a logical crest to those ideas.
It is tempting to fall in love with great ideas, but ideas are very much useless things unless you actually use them. Thought without action is just as dangerous as action without thought. You’re surrounded by ideas. The clothes that you wear, your computers, the books you read, the building you live in, the words you’re reading right now, everything in your life at one point started as another person’s idea. Idea, concept, reality— that’s how it works. If you can imagine it, you can create it in some shape or form, including yourself. Agency, like performance are great ideas, you can think about them as much as you like, but they require you to do something for them to be created. Performance art is not a conceptual idea: performance art is an act that must be lived. Agency, the potential of an individual to act in the world is not a conceptual idea: Agency is an act that must be lived.
I had always felt like a disempowered kid growing up; I was very lonely and felt like I “viewed” life, but could never enact in it. To me good things, fun things, and life events happened to other people; I guess that’s why I gravitated towards journalism, where the job is to observe and record. When I moved to New York out of college, without regular work I was essentially homeless for two and half years. Prospect Park in the morning, the Brooklyn Public Library (where I volunteered tutoring literacy) in the afternoon and performance art shows at night.
You are lucky if you can recall a decision that changed your life. One day I decided to write an article about Grace Exhibition Space for a Brooklyn based weekly newspaper, The Williamsburg Greenpoint News + Arts. I knew Jill McDermid and Erik Hokenson, the curators of the space from my brother, but I did not know who they were, what performance art was, or why they were interested in such acts as a woman, naked, crushing eggs with her body, or a man, bleeding after spending several hours chewing on stalks of sugar cane. What did they see? What moved them? My curiosity drove me. I moved slowly from spectator to performer in the gallery and in my world. Performance gave me confidence that I could contribute and was a part of something larger than myself.
Even at my lowest, I refused to let other “important” people define who I was or what I was capable of; I knew who I was and wanted to be, that’s all that mattered. At one point I got a freelance writing job reporting for Whitewall Magazine helping with their coverage of Miami Art Basel in 2012. On the press junket were other writers from publications such as Vogue and the Hollywood Reporter. We were given a personal tour of private collections that included large sculptures from Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Miró, original prints from Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series, and many more, personal collections that could easily pass for small museums. All the journalists talked about each others’ publications, even complimenting me and how much they liked the magazine I was writing for. Little did they know I was struggling to eat, and the nice black dress shoes I wore were borrowed from my brother. That was my business, not theirs. Later that night I would perform with Non Grata, an Estonian-based performance art group. But did the performance begin earlier that day foe me, I don’t know.
If you don’t like your life than go online or to your local mysticism shop, and buy a pack of tarot cards (or a pair of dice, or a Ouija board, or a Magic 8-Ball, it doesn’t matter). Open the deck, spread out the cards you like on the floor, be specific with what you want and live that life. Create your own story. Live your story. Create your own meaning in your life. If you’re a guy and really need to shake things up in your world, than shave your legs, put on some make-up and the finest women’s mod clothing, and then walk outside. It’s not that hard, and what’s the worst that can happen, eh?
In a world, where I am reliably told daily, the current playing field for the imagination has us dancing in existential despair under the shadow of a falling nuclear bomb, while a combination of overpopulation and climate change has us scrambling for the last scraps of food and the last drops of water on a dying Earth. Racism persists. Human oppression runs rampant. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the only defense we have to save the world are reality TV stars and ironic t-shirts.
If that is your conception of what the future holds for us, and that is the world you want to build towards than you seriously have a shitty fucking imagination. Is that really the best you can come up with? Could it be that we’re moving towards these dystopian scenarios because that IS the only future we can imagine for ourselves? If so, then I’m going to have to disagree. Use your imagination to embolden your life and the lives of others. Stop disempowering yourself by believing in your own your limitations and third-rate pulp science fiction narratives, and come up with new ideas that can actually help people.
This is why I love performance. Any Size Mirror Is A Dictator was a very humanistic work; like a great performance, it can make your heart soar, it can make you laugh, it can make you cry, and in some odd way, I feel, redeems us. It forces us to acknowledge that yes, you are important, you can construct the environment and person who you want to be. You cannot see or engage with the work of Brian McCorkle and Esther Neff, and not come away a smarter person (or at least more clever at gatherings), and you cannot have a conversation with either of them and not come away a better person.
Performance is the most important, culturally relevant and thought provoking art form being practiced today. It’s a journey, it’s an experience. I can get so happy to see a great performance from Nyugen Smith or so thankful to see a great performance from Lopi LaRoe because I felt liked it enlarged my life by not just looking at a work from a distance, but actually experiencing something an artist wanted to express; I knew that it represented what was going on, what was being valued, what was not being valued, what that says about me, what that says about us, and what that says about culture in general. I’ve lost count at the amount of times I’ve interviewed an artist and they have said they were influenced and inspired to perform by seeing another artist’s performance. Performance art is an art form that changes lives; at least it has for me.
– David LaGaccia
Comic Book credits:
Flex Mentallo # 1 Grant Morrison Story, Frank Quietly Penciles
The Invisibles Vol. 1 #13 Grant Morrison Story, Jill Thompson Penciles